Let Go the Distance

This is the next entry in a series about my trip in Chile. For the first entry in the series, click here. Otherwise, read on:

I’m 25 kilometers into the day, and more tired than I should be.  There’s a futility in waking up by the side of the road in a Gortex coffin, in eating shitty food, in walking hours into the wind through the same cold plains.  And I’m not moving fast enough.  I’d hoped for sixty kilometers a day, and that’s starting to seem heroic.  But much slower, and I’ll need more time to—

Let go the distance.  Let go the goal.

The words waft from my subconscious, like an ocean current sharing nutrients from the depths.  But they’re not my thoughts.  I’m not that wise, that articulate.  I’m too insecure to think this way, too enslaved to the judgment of others and the driven side of myself.  This is the sentiment of a zen master—well, or an ultra-runner.  Maybe those are the same thing.  Maybe I am growing as a person, learning to cope with weakness.  Maybe this trip is strengthening me.

Live each step.  Each hundred meters.

The judgment fades into a dull calm.  I let myself plod without stress or goals or plans, exactly the speed that feels natural.  In half an hour I’ve rebounded enough to speed walk again.  I even run sometimes, although not far.  My pack is 16 kilograms, and I’m realizing that’s too heavy to run more than short stretches at a time.  And that’s okay.  I’ll do what I can.

The hours pass calmly.  I have moments of joy and strength, and stretches of loneliness and fatigue.  I’m learning to let my emotions flow, without pushing them.  Twelve hours is a long time to chase the horizon.  It’s enough time to feel happy and sad, restless and content.

The landscape changes fitfully.  There’s low hills and ridges even in the pampas.  Towards sunset, strong, hazy fingers of light start piercing the sky.  The beams are separate from each-other somehow, almost like a set of floodlights just beyond the horizon, pointed at different angles.  And the strangest thing is…the light rays are on the eastern horizon.  The sun is setting on the opposite horizon of…this. 

It looks impossible, like a violation of physics.  I’ll have to ask someone more knowledgeable when I get the chance.

I walk another hour and then stop, one kilometer before Villa Tuelches.  I’ve done 59 kilometers since waking up.  I’d wanted to make 60—but the day is fading, and if I went any further, I’d have to go far past the town to camp.  No, 59 kilometers is enough.  60 is just a number.  It won’t enslave me.

Setting camp is peaceful.  I move gently, unhurried in the softening dusk.  Dinner is, admittedly, something to get over with.  Cous cous, cheese, oregano, and shots of olive oil.  I’m training myself to drink it straight from the bottle.  It’s unpleasant, but it’s the richest food I know of.  Nine thousand calories a kilo. 

I choke down a few gulps.  I need the calories.  If I lose too much weight, I can’t continue.  And if I carry more, I’ll have to slow down.  Something tastier would be too heavy for the pace I want, or not caloric enough.  That’s the cold, hard physics of it.  Whatever.  It’s a few seconds of tangy grossness, and then in my stomach and done with. 

Stars sharpen into existence while I put my food away and make the last preparations for the night.  It’s a little strange still, not seeing the Big Dipper.  It’s been there from Alaska to Nepal, childhood to last month.  But North is warm now, and South is the arctic of my youth.  I guess it’s fitting, that the guiding constellation points to the South Pole instead.  The Southern Cross.  A hard little diamond, four stars high in the sky.  I give it a last look, and close my eyes for the night.